I Learned A Lot About Myself From A Dead Guy

As I teacher, I try to learn from my experiences.  At times, the lessons are so blatant that I take immediate pause and think, “This is a teaching moment.  What have I learned here?”

For example, when you’re fourteen and walking down The Strip in Panama City Beach, you don’t hitchhike, no matter how sore your feet are, especially when the offer is from a carload of forty-something, mostly toothless men in a rusted-out Ford Crown Vic.  You absolutely do not trust your brother when he tells you to stick the end of the radio adapter plug to your tongue right after he’s plugged it in the wall, and you don’t let yourself be alone in the same room with a man that you know beats his girlfriend (because you might do something rash like stab him with your pocket bottle opener).

However, other times, the lesson is more subtle, something you come to hours, days, or years after the event.  With that in mind…

Several years ago, I lived in an upstairs apartment of a large complex. On a Sunday, around three in the afternoon, and as per my weekly routine, Fluffy and I were writing our grocery list to head out for our weekly run. He grabbed our bags; I grabbed my purse.  When I opened the door, I heard: “Oh God.  Oh, dear sweet Jesus.  Oh, somebody help me.  Jesus help me.  I think he’s dead.  He’s dead!”

I’m a moderately friendly neighbor.  I don’t always know names, but I know faces.  I wave or speak, pet dogs, and gripe about the weather, so I knew this voice.  It was my redheaded diagonally downstairs neighbor.  She was outside going into hysterics.  I sighed and looked out around the complex.  No one, and I mean no one was outside on this beautiful sunny Sunday.  No kids, no adults, no college kids.  No one.

To Fluffy, I said, “No one else is going to help her.”  He shrugged, and we went downstairs.

When she saw us, she grabbed my arm and begged us for help.  “I’ve already called my brother. I’m on the phone with 911.”  When Red gave me her cell phone, the operator asked me to go inside and check the body of her boyfriend.

That is when I saw my first dead person who wasn’t all prettied up in a casket.

He was face-down on the carpet in the nebulous “no-room” space between the kitchen, dining area, and living area.  His arm was outstretched with a piece of hard candy, a pink Jolly Rancher, just beyond his fingertips.  Their golden retriever mix was going ape shit, racing around the room, barking at us, at her, at the dead boyfriend.  The operator told me to have her put the dog in another room and then roll him over for further assessment.

When Red grabbed his arm, she squealed and began hyperventilating.  Fluffy, cool and calm as always, bent down and helped her heave her boyfriend – a heavyset man – onto his back.  He was purple, swollen, bloated, and leaky.  Red squealed again and jumped back.

To the operator, I said, “Ma’am, he’s purple.  It looks like he’s been dead a while.”

She said, “I can talk you through CPR.”

My automatic response was, “No!”  The guy was purple.  His lips were blue and swollen.  All of him was swollen.

Fluffy knows CPR, but when I asked if he would do it, he shook his head at me.  “I’m sorry, but this guy is dead dead.  I’m not doing CPR on him.”

At this point, Red launched into full panic mode.  She was too upset to try, not that I think she would’ve.  I walked back outside, still on her phone, and I heard the sirens of the ambulance.  Moments before it arrived, her brother did.  I gladly handed him the phone, got myself and Fluffy into my car, and drove to the grocery store.  In the parking lot of Publix, the adrenaline wore off.  I had the shakes for a solid half hour.

Later, we returned to the complex to find it crawling with police, paramedics, and gawkers.  People were actually sitting outside their apartments in lawn chairs watching all the goings-on.  “Where were they when she was screaming for help?” I asked.  “No one to be seen for miles until all the lights and sirens come.”  I was as sick and disgusted by the living as I was by the dead guy.

Red was out on her porch with her mother and brother, and she got up to thank us for trying to help and trying to calm her down.  “They said he died while I was at work, probably not long after I left.  We were going to get married this summer.”  I gave her a hug.

While unloading groceries, I said to Fluffy, “Just so you know, I’m going to be clingy for the next few days.”

The next morning, as I was getting ready for work, the lesson came to me: when someone is screaming for help, I will try to help…to an extent.  I could never give CPR to a complete stranger.  I just don’t have it in me to do something like that for the corpse of someone I don’t love.  I feel a little bad about that, but now I know.

Editorial Aid: My List of Overused and Abused Words

Why I need my list: One thing I have been told repeatedly is to edit the hell out of everything before trying to get it published. This stands to reason, as a manuscript full of typos and incorrect word usage is a turn-off for agents, editors, and publishers. Great, but no one has ever told me how to edit the hell out of something. I figured that grammar and spell checks factored in, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure, and those checks don’t catch everything. Thus, I developed a system for myself, and this list of words is a big part of that.

How I started my list: After I sent my mother the first novel I ever wrote, she called me and said, “I am sick and tired of Mr. Chuckles.” I had used that word over 50 times in 300 pages. No one chuckles that much. Because of that, I did some searching <ctrl+f> and came up with a list of words that I abuse. I always search these when editing. For the overused words, I don’t remove all of them, just enough to spread it out so you don’t notice it. (The book I am currently reading has “diffidently” 20 times in 400 pages. That is too much for an adverb!) The others are words that are abused – used incorrectly or typed in error.

My List:

  • cliches and colloquialisms (grammar check catches most of these, for American English)
  • then/than
  • farther/further
  • hear/here
  • your/you’re (a mortifying mistake for an author, but it happens)
  • there/their/they’re (another mortifying mistake)
  • form/from
  • fro/for
  • words that end with -wards should be -ward (toward not towards)
  • piece of [my, his, her] mind/peace of mind
  • you outside of a quotation
  • had/passive voice (you can’t get rid of them all; you can’t and shouldn’t, but you should try to keep your writing active!)
  • is/was (you can’t get rid of them all, and you shouldn’t)
  • fuck/shit/piss/hell/damn (no one should curse all the time)
  • my own (replace with “mine” or just “my” whenever possible)
  • grumble
  • growl
  • chuckle
  • snicker/snigger usage (I don’t think anyone really uses snigger anymore)
  • flop (my characters flop onto furniture a lot)
  • hum (related to sex scenes)
  • hiss (dialogue must have have words with S’s for characters to hiss)
  • wiggle
  • smirk
  • like (when I should use “as if,” “as,” or “as though”)
  • could, would, and should
  • words in place of “said” (don’t over-do it)
  • seem
  • appear

Those last two are often used incorrectly, so it’s best to avoid them if you can. If you have more suggestions, please share!

Cumberland

It’s a stretch of highway between rolling hills of grazing cows where you will find the thawing carcass of a yeti that tried to go south for the winter, where old wooden ships are playhouses for children, where the crane operated box of chainsaws chews foliage away from traffic, where the cleaved open mountain looms over the lanes, where you may drive through fog or deer or falling rock, where you will stare ahead blankly wishing for the road to end and when it does, you know you are almost home.

Waiting…a different time.

During the hours that I sat in the waiting room for Oncology, I studied dream interpretation. I bought several books on the subject, and while the doctors radiated my mother, I read about symbolism. The waiting room was large, so large that I could sit alone and never worry that anyone would need to sit next to me. I always sat in the section away from the TV and close to the refreshment center. I kept to myself and spoke to no one. I just read until the nurse called me to go out and pull the car around for my mother.

One Thursday, a woman sat next to me, which forced me stop reading and acknowledge her. She smiled and pointed to my book.  “Dream interpretation,” she said. “Sounds neat.”

“It can be,” I said.

We introduced ourselves and began a lengthy conversation on the symbolism of colors and numbers.

After talking for about ten minutes, she told me that she moved her father in with her family so she could take care of him, her husband, and her three kids. Bone cancer. Even now, I still wince at the thought of it. Not as bad as pancreatic, liver, or colon cancers but bad, very hard to treat, usually fatal. He was to the point where he had to wear a neck brace all the time. It was the first time that I was ever thankful for the type of cancer my mother had.

For the next week, she brought her father at the same time I brought my mother, and we talked about dreams and cancer. I feel a bit ashamed that I can’t remember her name, especially since I remember her dreams. They were normal dreams about every day sorts of things with the exception that she was always dragging a heavy black garbage bag. About the time he reached the point where he could no longer care for himself, her father began throwing all his trash down the ravine behind his house. The hillside was strewn with black garbage bags of trash, and this woman and her husband had to clean it all up before they could sell the house. She was angry and burdened, and those feelings made her feel guilty. After talking about it, she felt better and joked that I ought to charge her for my time.

Near the end of that week, her father’s white count was too low for him to receive more treatments. After that, I never saw her again, but one of the nurses, who overheard our conversations, commented to me that I was a sweet girl for talking to her.  Her father’s prognosis was poor, and I had likely eased her guilt about the situation.

Of the meeting, my mother said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

I replied, “Of course He does. If He didn’t, we would all understand everything, and there would be no cancer.”

“You know I believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said.

“Yeah, well, why do you think you got cancer?”

She shrugged. “Maybe to bring you and your father closer together.”

“That’s fucked up,” I said, to which she snapped at me for cursing. “I think you got cancer because you grew up in a city before there was any regulation on what toxins industries to pump into the air, and you went to college in a town where the morning air was so filled with chemicals it was yellow.”

“And I didn’t wear sunscreen like I should,” she added. “Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes things just break.”

So I thought, Even God answers his children’s questions with, “Because.” It’s not an answer at all, so why bother asking?

Predator

He considered himself no different from any other animal that finds joy in toying with its prey before delivering it unto Death. He used only the weapons nature gave him, and he didn’t always eat what he killed. He considered most of it practice, a honing of skills and body.

He watched an episode of Blue Planet that showed a pod of killer whales stalking a blue whale and its pup, taunting the mother, nipping at the babe. When the pup was exhausted, they toyed with the mother until she could no longer defend her offspring. The orcas circled and jabbed, like a pack of boxers, and when they finally separated mother and child, they killed the pup but ate only its cheek meat – the choicest cut, so to speak. After the orcas left, the mother whale swam around the pup for hours, nudging it.

The unspoken questions were obvious. Were the orcas evil? Did the blue whale love her pup?  He knew that such questions had no meaning in nature. He wondered where humans got off thinking they were evil or just or loving. Just because they believed they had souls, because they thought themselves civilized with advanced language skills, they were somehow better and accountable to someone’s notion of moral standards. Ants were civilized, and they sure as hell didn’t have ethics. Mounds often went to war with one another. Yes, he knew it was bullshit.

When he killed, it was because it was in his nature because he was of nature and not bound by a fabricated sense of right and wrong. When he killed his own kind, it was no different than the male dolphin, orangutan, or lion that slaughtered his competitors’ offspring and mated with as many females as possible to increase the odds of leaving a significant genetic footprint amongst the species.  What he did was normal, and those who said differently were kidding themselves.

Dressing

In the barn, the deer hung on something that resembled a sadistic coat hanger.  The ends were sharpened spikes that pierced through the skin between the small bones in the deer’s lower hind legs.  The hook was a loop of metal hung on a fat tack, resembling a small railroad spike, in a beam of the barn.  The deer dangled, spread-eagle, over the vegetable tray from the beer fridge.

He’d killed it only two hours before and field dressed it, so it only smelled of blood and wild animal.  Gamey.  He’d let the dogs in to sniff around, and when he set the body to swinging, the lab licked up the dribbled blood while the rat terrier went berserk.  It leapt at the deer’s face, snapping until it latched onto the tongue.  The dog jerked its head from side-to-side, wrenching the deer’s neck in a blur of motion.

“That’s enough now,” he said to the terrier and herded both dogs outside so he could butcher the deer.  “We start with the saw.”

He lifted a rusted wood saw and put the blade against the silvery-brown fur of the deer.  “Right here, just above what we’ll call his elbow,” he explained as the saw slid through fur and skin, through tendons and ligaments and the joint.  For a moment, he held the lower right front leg by its ankle.  With a casual flick of the wrist, he flung it outside the barn, with the result of excited, shrill barks from the dogs.  He repeated the process on the other front leg.

When he’d made all the use he needed of the saw, he set it aside and picked up the fillet knife.  After poking a small hole in the skin above the shoulder, he slid the knife between meat and skin, being careful to cut off the silver skin as well.  “You gotta get it all.  It’s awful eatin’,” he said.  “Chewy as hell.”

The butchering went in stages – separating skin from meat and meat from bone.  All the while, the steady drip, drip, drip of blood and juices giving rhythm to his work and the twitching of the body as friction countered the knife blade.  When he finished, he had filled a large Tupperware tub with meat, and the deer was now a stripped skeleton with only its head intact.

“It’s not pretty enough to mount,” he complained, grabbing the antlers and staring the deer in its filmy eyes.  “Here,” he gestured to the tub, “take that on up to the house and let the dogs back in for just a minute.  I’ll let ’em play.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, picking up the tub.

I heard the yips of the terrier and deep-chested growls of the lab mix in with his laughter as I crossed the yard to the back door of the house.  In my hands, the meat was still slightly warm.

Tutor

Sitting on the concrete bench in front of the building, I smoked between classes.  I liked the spot, a kind of perch atop the wide stairs that overlooked sidewalks, flowerbeds, oaks planted after the campus burned during the Civil War, and the crosswalk.  Despite a flashing neon yellow sign that read, “Stop for pedestrians,” someone got hit there every semester.  Stupid kids, driving like stupid kids, and hitting other stupid kids like they were squirrels.

I hogged the bench.  I had my feet up, my knees tucked up to my chest.  I liked sitting that way – the way they made us hunker during tornado drills or actual tornados when I was in elementary school.  With my right arm wrapped around my knees, I clasped my left arm just above the elbow.  With methodical timing, I bent my elbow, took a drag, and straightened my arm.  Then, I watched as the smoke wafted out of my gaping mouth or streamed from my nostrils.  I’m a dragon, I thought childishly and smiled at myself.

“Hey,” someone called to me.

Like a Viewmaster, I blinked to switch from what I thought to the real world.  I looked two steps down to find the guy-in-the-Pantera-T-shirt.  He always wore one with faded, black jeans, black Chuck Taylor’s, and three wallet chains.  This day, he wasn’t wearing his dog collar bracelet or armor ring.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He tossed his backpack at the base of the bench and took out his pack of cigarettes.  Since he meant to sit, and I felt polite, I swiveled, letting my feet drop, and sat on the bench normally.  He patted himself, and knowing what he sought, I offered him my lighter, keeping my hand out as a reminder for him to return it.  He did and sat beside me.

“How’re you doing in this class?”  He waved his cigarette at the building.

Simultaneously, we turned our heads and blew smoke over the azaleas instead of in each other’s faces while never breaking eye contact.  I rubbed my cigarette under the bench to put it out, not minding when bits of hot tobacco stung my hand, and set the butt on the bench between us.

“Good,” I said in answer to his question.

“I thought so.  Could you maybe help me?  I mean, I can pay you, some.”

“Yeah, I’m real busy.”  After a glance at my watch, I knew I had time for one more, so I bent sideways to fish out a smoke from the front pocket of my backpack.  Pantera bumped my arm and offered me one of his.

When I took it, he said, “Yeah, I figured, but look, I’m serious.  I have to pass this class.”

I lit the cigarette and took a drag, exhaled and took another, making him stew just a bit.  “How about Saturday?  There isn’t a game.”

He winced.  “I can’t do it then.  My friends and I…we build rockets.”

My eyebrows darted up at that.  “Really?  Like fifth grade science class?”

“Well, not dinky ones.”

“You build rockets,” I mused and thought of the little engines that looked like rolls of coins with tampon strings.  “Do they have parachutes?”

He laughed and looked off into the bushes.  “Yeah, and one weekend, a buddy of mine had his dad down and he helped us make napalm.”

I choked.  “That’s just…not normal.”  Then, I laughed because anyone who spoke to me for more than five minutes knew I wasn’t normal.  “Yeah, okay Pantera-Napalm-Guy.  When are you free?”

We made plans to meet at the library on Thursday afternoon, and when he finished his smoke, I said I’d meet him in class.  I sat a bit longer, wondering how much money the University spent on grounds upkeep.  The azaleas were quite beautiful, cotton candy pink.

When I stood, my bottom was numb from sitting for so long on that hard, concrete bench.  Nintendo butt, my brother called it, like Nintendo thumb.  Except now, there was Sega thumb, X-Box thumb, and Playstation thumb.  I wondered if anyone had ever used a Playstation dual-shock controller as a vibrator.

I pinched my cigarette just above the filter and rolled it between my fingers.  When the hot rock fell out, I scrubbed it across the concrete with my boot and flicked the unburned tobacco free.  I always left that little bit because I hated the taste of burnt filter.

After buying a coffee from the street vendor, I pitched my butts into the trash and headed back in the building to class.